One of those very interesting things that has come from the forced synchronous hybrid model that we are now doing is that I have actually been able to experiment with something that I have been wanting to do for a long time. I have really been wanting to have a back channel for communication in my hybrid classes.
When I started teaching hybrid, I originally had it as a discussion-only class. The highest grade came from coming to class every day and talking out loud in class. As I came to realize that I was disadvantaging students who either could not or did not want to participate in an oral discussion, I have added an online discussion forum that runs along with the course. I first had just a single discussion forum that the students could use at any time in the semester. Since the pandemic, I have moved to weekly forums, but they are still open the whole semester. The weekly format allows each one to be topical rather than just a broad discussion that could include anything. That has solved the problem of giving a place for students who either can’t or won’t participate in an oral discussion.
What had been missing was a synchronous way for my students to participate in class without having to talk. I had considered some options, such as Discord or Slack, but I really didn’t want to add yet another technology for my students to have to manage. As well, I just wasn’t sure if I could manage students in class and a text chat at the same time. So, this had been an idea that had just been running in the back of my head for a while.
What has happened this semester with the new synchronous Zoom hybrid course is that I now have that back channel discussion. With the students on Zoom, they have the full capabilities of Zoom to play with. And, since many of them don’t want to have their cameras on, and it is hard to manage them talking along with the people in class talking, they have been using the chat to contribute in class. And, it has been great!
It is actually pretty easy for me to manage having about 1/3 of the students in class, while the rest are on Zoom. With most of them typing rather than talking, it actually is pretty easy to then manage the 2/3 on Zoom. I actually can call on the people in class by name more easily, and I have a better ability to memorize their names, as fewer are there. Then, with the ones typing in the Zoom chat, I also have a name associated with each one. So, I can read what they write out to everyone, and I can also call on them by name as well as get to them for follow-ups.
Even better, Zoom automatically sends you a transcript of the chat, so I don’t even have to keep track of who participates in the chat in real time, as I can get their names and what they said afterwards. That actually frees me up to pay more attention to the actual conversation, as I don’t have to worry about keeping track of participation from that part of the class.
So, in summary, this has been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as something that I had been looking to do just fell into my lap.
I just finished up the first “week” of the hybrid class. The real first week was taken up with orienting the students to the class and introducing the format (as I detailed here). Since then, I have been seeing each of my sections for the first time with real work to do. I divided the class up so that each student only meets once a week, and, since Labor Day was last Monday, we just finished up the first round of classes today.
For this week, I had the students do the usual stuff – access my lectures and read the textbook. However, the activity in class centered around the students watching a video and then having a discussion in class. As this is the first half of American history, we concentrated in on the Spanish conquest and the motivations for coming to the New World. For that purpose, I chose a video that looks at the transformations that occurred on both sides of the exchange between cultures. I would have loved to have had the students watch the documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel, but that is not available for free and is not available streaming for my students. Even more, I would have loved to have them read the book, but that is even more impossible at this stage. So, I settled on one offered free and streaming through pbs called When Worlds Collide. It is not bad, although the narrator does get on my nerves a bit.
The actual class day went like this:
- Troubleshooting/check in on progress
- Student introductions (I waited for the smaller groups for this)
- Questions about lecture/textbook content and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Discussion on the documentary
The discussion went well in all four classes. Nothing spectacular, as expected for the first time out. And, as expected, only around a third of the students actively participated. Since the grade is almost completely participation based, I’m going to assume that some more might be participating the next time out. I also, since it was the first time out with this discussion model, let the students largely direct the discussion. I tried to ask as few questions as I could and let them go where they wanted. I started each discussion with the “What did you think? What did you learn new?” set of questions, and, for the most part, that’s the most guidance I needed to do. Because of the other things, we only had about 30-40 minutes for the discussions, but that seemed to work pretty well. What was interesting is how different the four different discussions were. Even though the material was the same, each class went in different directions. We did cover many of the same topics, but, instead of a lecture that dictates exactly what each student will hear, this more free-ranging approach allowed the students to concentrate in on what they found interesting.
Another very interesting aspect of this approach was the number of times that I was asked a question. When lecturing, I rarely ever get stopped and asked questions by my students. The very mode of a lecture can be fairly prohibitive of that. With this format, though, I was asked multiple questions by the students. While some were asking about things they did not understand, the majority of the questions were more along the lines of asking for further information about what they were interested in. In that way, I feel that the discussion model was a success.
The drawback that is quite apparent at this point is that only about a third of students are participating. The rest just sit there. This class cannot work with only a third participation, and grades for the rest are going to be quite low otherwise. I am going to see how this next set of assignments work, as it will involve some in-class group work. We shall see what happens then.